The changing verb phrase in present-day British English
- Is there evidence of recent change in the overall frequency of the perfect construction in spoken British English?
- Is the same pattern of change seen for the different tense forms of the perfect (present, past, and non-finite)?
Summary of main findings:
- Overall, there is a statistically significant decline in the frequency of the perfect construction from LLC (1960s-1970s) to ICE-GB (1990s).
- The different tense forms of the perfect show different patterns
- The present perfect (the most frequent form) shows no significant change in frequency.
- The past perfect and infinitive perfect both show statistically significant declines in frequency.
1. Frequencies of perfect auxiliary tense categories in DCPSE
The table shows two distinct series of chi-square tests. Column A compares the distribution of each term with the total number of words. Column B compares each term relative to the trend of the overall set of perfect auxiliaries. For example, Column A shows that the slight percentage increase of the present perfect is not considered significant compared with the number of words, while Column B shows that it does differ significantly from the overall pattern.
The normalised (pmw) percentage change over time from LLC to ICE-GB subcorpora can be plotted in the form of a bar chart, shown in Figure 1 below. The error bars represent p<0.05 confidence intervals.
Note that the data in Table 1 exclude instances of the 'semi-modal' HAVE got [to] (as in a lot of work has got to be done on it), but include instances of the combination HAVE + got which occur with an NP object and express a stative meaning (e.g. he's got two kids 'he has two kids'). These stative examples involve an idiom which is historically derived from a perfect construction. They are frequent in the present perfect data and should be taken into account in a detailed analysis of that category. However, they do not affect the findings summarised above: if the data are recalculated to exclude such examples, the overall pattern remains similar.
The Perfect Infinitive
A more detailed investigation was made of the perfect infinitive. A great majority of examples of the perfect infinitive in the corpus (88%) occur following a modal auxiliary, while the remainder occur in contexts following the infinitival marker to. Modal auxiliaries have themselves declined in frequency in our data. This led us to pose a further question.
- Can the declining frequency of the perfect infinitive simply be attributed to the declining frequency of the modal auxiliary as a potential context of occurrence?
Summary of findings:
- When potential modal contexts and to-contexts are taken as the baseline, it is shown that the proportions of perfect infinitives fall within both types of context. Therefore the perfect infinitive shows trends of decline that are independent of the decline in modal auxiliaries.
Table 2a. Changes in the proportion of perfect infinitives
Table 2b. Changes in the proportion of perfect infinitives
For additional details, a draft version of a paper by Bowie and Aarts (forthcoming 2012) can be downloaded here. A further paper includes a detailed study of the past perfect (Bowie, Wallis and Aarts, forthcoming 2012) and can be downloaded here. These and other papers can also be downloaded from the main page for the project, The changing verb phrase in present-day British English.
This page last modified 28 May, 2015 by Jill Bowie.